The image and the general reality of being a university president are so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that it is extremely difficult to imagine another type of higher education leadership model. It includes a commitment to faculty and governance, research, fund-raising, alumni , and current students, all intertwined in a 60 hour/week DNA that also includes intercollegiate athletics and on-campus cultural and student events. And this person is usually an educator who rose through the ranks to become an administrator at a later stage in life.
Yet even as we look forward to the post-traditional world, we see, if we look critically, that the role of the university president has already changed over the last 30 years, diversifying, leaving some traditional responsibilities behind and adding others that used to be considered irrelevant or inappropriate. After all, it is a long way from the Swarthmore of 1955 to the Ohio State of 2014. Today, most colleges and universities, even those that are publicly funded, are run like businesses, with the management wolf trying to hide in the academic sheep’s clothing.
In an article that appeared in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Dr. Hunter Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities, gives a full-throated endorsement of their contributions:
“…(they)…have never been in so much demand…have never been ranked more highly…have never contributed so much to the production of vital knowledge, to national security, to national economic growth,…and to local economies.”
He goes on to say that universities are criticized for unsurprising reasons, such as lower public financial support, increased pressure to attend college, the sheer size and complexity of universities, and the resulting political and legal complications. According to Rawlings, “We should get used to the fact that we will have to endure a lot of criticism, much of it unwarranted and unfair.” He then admits to several areas of justified criticism of colleges and universities, including loss of academic rigor, failure to limit costs, over-reliance on the “high tuition, high-financial aid” strategy, and “the monster called intercollegiate athletics.”
All of this is true. What Rawlings is missing, however, is an analysis of the post-traditional world.
The leadership challenges faced by institutions and organizations that do not operate like the current-day economic and academic version of traditional universities are different in focus and substance. And what it will take to lead those organizations in the post-traditional era is a conversation that needs to begin.
I believe that post-traditional leadership will be avowedly more practical and outcomes-oriented, as will be their learners and academic support staff. Thus
- curricular content may not be owned by the institution, but assessment results will be;
- mentoring, active advising, and subject matter experts will supplement, and in some cases supplant, the traditional teaching model;
- technology will inform and undergird every aspect of the learning and administrative processes;
- career readiness will be a requirement for graduation;
- big data will improve student success rates and organizational performance continuously; and
- reflection will lie at the center of assessment, creating a new pedagogy around making meaning of the experience of learning.
While the post-traditional world may not, in many cases, embrace the traditional liberal arts as a core “theology” of higher education, its educational leaders will need to focus on learners and learning, research and improved practices that promote learning, and the organization of resources so that they promote learner-centered pathways to both economic and academic success throughout life.
This does not herald the end of the contemporary version of the traditional college model or the value of the liberal arts. It does, however, portend a new, post-traditional view and sector in higher education that is driven by a different vision and different commitments to learning.